DHAKA (Reuters) - A Bangladesh tribunal convicted an Islamist party leader and sentenced him to death on Thursday, the third verdict by the court set up to investigate abuses during the country’s independence war, triggering widespread protests by supporters in which at least 15 people were killed.
Delwar Hossain Sayedee, 73, vice-president of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, was found guilty of mass killing, rape, arson, looting and forcing minority Hindus to convert to Islam during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan, lawyers and tribunal officials said.
The religious party, known simply as Jamaat, had called for a day-long countrywide strike in anticipation of the verdict against Sayedee, the third senior party member convicted by the tribunal.
Police, witnesses and media reports said at least 15 people were killed and around 200 wounded in clashes between Jamaat activists and police as violence erupted in more than a dozen districts.
Protesters set fire to a Hindu temple and several houses in Noakhali district, south of Dhaka, reporters said. In southeastern Cox’s Bazar, they attacked a police camp.
In the capital, authorities deployed extra police and members of a rapid response force and put paramilitary soldiers on standby, a Home Ministry official told reporters.
Thousands of people in the capital’s Shahbag square, who support the tribunal and have been protesting for weeks to demand the highest penalty for war criminals, burst into cheers as the sentence was announced.
Sayedee looked defiant and remained calm in the dock as judges read out the verdict, witnesses said.
“I didn’t commit any crime and the judges are not giving the verdict from the core of their heart,” Sayedee told the court. “They are submitting to the excessive pressure from Shahbag,” he said, referring to the protests.
State prosecutor Haider Ali told reporters he was happy with the verdict which he said “appropriately demonstrated justice”.
Defence attorney Abdur Razzak said the sentence was politically motivated. “He is a victim of sheer injustice. We will appeal,” he said.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina set up the tribunal in 2010 to investigate abuses during the war that claimed about 3 million lives and during which thousands of women were raped.
The tribunal has been criticised by rights groups for failing to adhere to international standards of due process. Human Rights Watch cited defence lawyers, witnesses and investigators as saying they had been threatened.
Critics say the tribunal is being used by the prime minister as an instrument against her opponents in the two biggest opposition parties, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat-e-Islami. Begum Khaleda Zia, Hasina’s arch rival and leader of the BNP, has called the tribunal a farce.
Hasina’s party has denied allegations of bias.
On January 21, the tribunal sentenced Abul Kalam Azad, a former Jamaat member, to death in absentia after he was found guilty of torture, rape and genocide during the independence war.
In its second verdict, on February 5, the tribunal sentenced another senior Jamaat member, Abdul Quader Mollah, 64, to life in prison after he was found guilty of murder, rape, torture and arson.
Both verdicts sparked protests by Jamaat supporters.
But those protests incited larger counter-demonstrations by supporters of the tribunal demanding death sentences for all those responsible for abuses during the war.
Nine more people, mostly Jamaat members, are facing trial for war crimes, tribunal officials said.
The overwhelmingly Muslim south Asian country of 160 million people would likely see more violence in the run-up to parliamentary elections in January, in which both Hasina and Khaleda will run for power, analysts said.
Jamaat is a potential ally of Khaleda’s BNP and holds a big chunk of its vote bank.
Bangladesh became part of Pakistan at the end of British colonial rule in 1947. But the country then known as East Pakistan won independence with India’s help in December 1971 following a nine-month war against the then West Pakistan.
Some factions in Bangladesh opposed the break with Pakistan, including the Jamaat. Jamaat leaders have denied involvement in abuses.
Additional reporting by Ruma Paul and Serajul Quadir; Editing by Nick Macfie